The Grand Conversation

20 July 2008

Featuring Our Cognitive Surplus

One of the ironies of blogging is that in pursuit of the grand conversation, the epitome of Web 2.0 togetherness, writing often takes precedence over reading and the chance to comment on some-one else’s blog dwindles with each new post. Those of us who work professionally as writers and editors feel this the most, partly because we read so much in our line of work anyway, but also because a small distraction in a day can set a project back by hours. And if it’s not done by six o’clock, you just have to keep working into the night. Or on the weekend. So as I try to do from time to time I’m using this post to highlight a blog that I really should be commenting on, Greg Sadler’s new effort, Our Cognitive Surplus.

Many bloggers are sceptical about new blogs, wanting evidence of longevity before the initial burst of enthusiasm can be evaluated. But my opinion is that silence never encourages, and that enthusiasm grows with enthusiasm returned. Greg left a couple of very pertinent remarks here earlier in the week, on both my rudimentary (and yet to be tested!) comment policy and my recent consideration of Roman historiography. They struck me as intelligent and meant very much in the spirit of conversation, so I visited his blog to see what else he’s been ruminating about.

Greg writes from Canberra in Australia, and while his focus is by no means on the city, he does capture its essence in one brief burst – his comments on being accosted by evangelical Catholics in Civic had personal resonance for me, having lived thereabouts for six years. Canberra is very often a city of extreme and contradictory opinion, thrown about without much consideration for whether anyone is listening. Greg’s also perceptive in his assessment of the encounter, considering the importance of beliefs expressed even as he rues the lack of an internally functional paradigm within much religious debate. In other words, reason flies out the window all too often when dissent dares object to the received wisdom.

You might not agree with everything Greg writes, but that’s the whole point. He wants to start a conversation, and disagreement is inherent in any dialogue. So Greg, if you’re reading this, I will reply to your comments soon and I’m sure there’ll be much more to talk about. To everyone else who cares to converse, pay Our Cognitive Surplus a visit. It’s just beginning, but there should be a great deal more to come.


Flickr Fascination

9 July 2008

On Images and a Little Innovation

The very best images capture something of the movement that brings a moment alive, the idea central to a new understanding. They drag the viewer in and speak to the senses of what has been and what might have been, just beyond the frame. For every fact they leave a promise, an invitation to return later to think again. I mentioned in a previous post how Roy Blumenthal’s artwork on Flickr does just that. Roy offers his electronic paintings under Creative Commons licences, which are superb invitations to revisit, use, reuse and share. But the more I’ve been using Flickr to find the images that populate my posts – that explain, contradict or reinforce what I mean – the more frustrated I’ve grown with its Creative Commons search function.

Flickr is a fantastic resource for any blogger and an endless source of fascination for me. It offers something for everyone, from the truly weird and the powerfully stated to the deeply experimental and the blandly pornographic. That’s the whole point – it draws people in, allows them to share their efforts with those who are likeminded, or who might well become likeminded after a browse or two.

By every indication, Flickr groups, the virtual communities that form around certain styles, subjects and themes, are very much alive and well. As Clay Shirky observed in Here Comes Everybody, even the most ad hoc groups on Flickr serve the valuable function of allowing people to organise themselves without organisations. Photostreams featuring social movements and protest rallies abound.

But that’s also a problem. Ask Flickr to search for images labelled ‘poverty’, for instance, and you’ll soon see countless photos of middle-class white people protesting about conditions in the third world. It’s all a little abstract. You’ll also find the stunning and equally moving photography of Gregory Smith, founder of the Children at Risk Foundation in Brazil, which is a saving grace. Finding an image that speaks to you is a moment to treasure – a precise point in time at which you can learn something valuable. But finding another ‘make poverty history logo’ is a hollow experience. It leaves little else to say.

Thankfully there’s an alternative way of searching Flickr for Creative-Commons-licensed images. When I was speaking on the Everyday Extraordinary Lives Show podcast the other day, Mike Seyfang mentioned to me a web application that’s been around for a while and seems to have quite a few happy usersflickrCC.

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Connecting the Commonplace

3 July 2008

A Podcast on Possibilities

Neon mic, by fensterbme, with Creative Commons licencePrivilege is an under-rated word – it tends to convey a sense of unwarranted wealth and power when it can more easily be a synonym for honour. The two concepts are diametrically opposed but together can produce a synthesis of sorts, with the honour perhaps just a little undeserved. In that sense I had the privilege earlier today of speaking to Dave Wallace and Mike Seyfang on their Extraordinary Everyday Lives Show. Along with Kent Newsome, the pair host occasional podcasts that range across the spectrum of technology, networking, people and ideas. Much of our focus today was on the work I’m doing with domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, especially in relation to Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death. But the concepts shifted from the significance of Creative Commons licensing to the nuances of activism and on to technical solutions for networked text messaging.

As I say, a privilege. You can listen to the podcast at the site, or download it to listen at your leisure.

Dave Wallace has featured here at Greetings Earthlings! a few times now, first as a commenter and then as the inspiration behind ideas I’ve reworked or reinterpreted. He describes his Lifekludger blog as an “ecosystem for enriching human life”, and his capacity to identify connections that other people might just barely notice is only really apparent when you speak to him in person. Or as ‘in person’ as a connection between Hong Kong and Adelaide will allow.

Mike Seyfang, a self-confessed “IT-git”, is also a pleasure to speak with because he digs into concepts and shakes their entrails. He’s particularly fervent about the possibilities of open licensing for intellectual property, and has featured at the Creative Commons wiki. He also blogs at Learning with the Fang, which I’ll be visiting a great deal in the near future.

Meela & freedado, by pierofix, with Creative Commons licenceTogether the pair made me think more about the intersection of people and technology that’s becoming more commonplace, and indeed more liberating, as new possibilities move from fertile minds to people on the street who are busy living, learning, working and laughing. And from that everyday activity, other ideas move in the opposite direction.

It’s like an ecosytem, as Dave would say, or a merging of memes. Most importantly its about people meeting people regardless of the distance between them.


Getting Organised for Good

25 June 2008

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

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Risk and Redemption

28 May 2008

On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes

Disney Institute -- Steamboat Willie Says Take Risks, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons LicenceAll too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.

So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.

If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.

The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.

Lifekludger first idea, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceDave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.

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When the Message Matters

20 May 2008

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

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Feeding Your Mind

14 May 2008

Some of the News that’s Fit to Read

RSS Feed IconNews is what you make of it, and not all that’s written is worth reading. Much of the initial reasoning behind this blog was to capture something of the illogic in what passes for news, to question assumptions entrenched in the public domain. Of course that leaves me well open to criticism of my own position, but it’s a risk worth taking if I want to encourage others to re-think and see things again, in different ways. So I’m extending my efforts now to other voices, those saying things that aren’t often heard in precisely the same way.

I’ve always included links to other sites – some deliberately silly, others very serious, most somewhere in between – in the sidebar to offer alternatives and compliments to what I write about. They’ve now been joined by a small selection of news feeds.

If you look towards the bottom of the sidebar you’ll see three new text boxes, carrying what are usually called RSS feeds. There’s some debate about what RSS stands for – Internet development is often so rushed that no-one really pays attention to who names what, and less-than-helpful abbreviations abound. It could stand for Really Simple Syndication, or for Rich Site Summary. But it’s probably just as easy to think of yourself as reading some stuff that comes to you, rather than having to look for it every day.

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Not the Usual Fare

15 April 2008

On the Value of Exceeding Expectations

Direction, by 23am.com, with Creative Commons licenceExpectations are what ground us in life. They give us instructions about the things we’re likely to value, or fear, to treat with indifference or just plain disregard. But they also lead us away from perspectives that require a little too much thought in peculiar directions. I mentioned this briefly when I wrote about cartoonist Scott Adams recently – he has always succeeded against other people’s expectations. But what about ideas? Are we too dismissive of ideas that don’t fit our expectations?

That’s what I had in mind when I set out to write a new batch of microreviews this week. The books highlighted in the sidebar aren’t the usual fare. They shift from the surprising delights of comics to the far more dubious social mechanics of drug-dealing gangs, all the while taunting, asking whether you, leisurely reader, will buy their big ideas. And whether I appreciate them or not, that’s a valuable asset in itself.

Probably the most disappointing book of the batch is Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. An account of Venkatesh’s unusual approach to sociology forms most of one chapter in Seven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. But where that version cuts to the bone and reveals society writ small in the economics of drug dealing, Venkatesh’s book wallows in a sort of tough but scared sociologist mode.

Aghast in Green, by Irish Typepad, with Creative Commons licenceAnd there’s also a sort of repulsiveness about the subject that makes it at once fascinating and almost loathsome. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution describes the effort as very interesting but “somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept”. Interesting because it offers a unique view of how close gang dynamics are to more acceptable social norms, but evil because Venkatesh spent years encouraging and supporting the vicious gang leader JT. As a narrative the book fails, but as a surprising affront to middle-class values I truly hope it lingers on the best-seller lists.

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Knowledge is Never Finished

14 April 2008

The ‘Freeconomics’ of Spreading Ideas

The Sinister Idea, by Felipe Morin, with Creative Commons licenceHow do ideas shift across society, through time? Brian Aldiss once wrote that we really have no firm understanding of how an intellectual elite passes on difficult concepts to the general public. Sure, education’s a part of it, as are what Antonio Gramsci called organic intellectuals – those who engage their communities, offer what they know and learn from the experience. Social networking and blogs have diminished geographical boundaries in that sense, but if we stay focused on the Internet there’s another vital aspect of the process that not everyone considers: commerce.

You might be thinking of e-learning services or pay-per-visit news sites, but I want to suggest a more traditional medium that’s making itself over. I’ve mentioned before that academic papers are easy to dredge up online, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re interested in what I recently called casual learning with a nod to Ivan Illich. Most of those papers are available on pages maintained by their authors, although some are orphaned on project sites long after the researcher has moved on. It’s not very often that you can drag out full journal issues free of charge, but it’s becoming a little more common.

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A Pause to Consider

13 April 2008

Why Wikipedia’s Definition of Racism is the Best We’ll Get

Four Noble Truths, Miguel Ramirez, with Creative Commons licenceDefinitions promise a great deal of certainty but elude us with ease. It’s often difficult to insist that meaning can or should be pinned down in each case, every time. Last week I argued for the importance of defining knowledge as a concept, but I’ve also agreed that simplistic explanations deform our understanding of the world. Two different cases, two different opinions. And then there are concepts so laden with emotion, so imbued with the grit of life, that we need to define them even though the results will be provisional, even though the scope may well be insufficient. Racism is one of those concepts, and it’s not just back and white.

Writing about the treatment of maids in Hong Kong and the revival of eugenics around the world has been difficult recently without referring to racism. In both cases skin colour makes a very substantial difference in people’s attitudes. But the associated structures of thought echo heavily with considerations of anthropology, economics, science and sociology, not all of which break down to racial prejudice. I did add a racism category to archive the post on eugenics, but in both cases I wanted to block suggestions that I’d labelled any specific person racist against the evidence.

Differences / Diferencias, by victor_nuno, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s an easy accusation to make, but only because racism is an easy term to abuse. Much of the problem lies in the lack of a universally acknowledged definition. We don’t have much difficulty agreeing about what sin might entail, or hate, but racism slips away. It seems to encompass those two terms – which is why it almost always has negative connotations – but is clearly something else again with the addition of skin colour. Or the presumption that skin colour makes a difference.

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There Went the Future

10 April 2008

Casual Learning and Web 2.0

learn, by aaron schmidt, with Creative Commons LicenceWe presume much of the past but rarely understand exactly what it hides. In our expectation to have lived and learned enough we stumble over half-familiar ideas without a second thought. But sometimes it pays to stop and look around. Following my recent posts on knowledge management and Andrew Keen’s assault on Web 2.0, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we learn – not just the formal ways in which we’re educated, but the mechanisms of learning by chance.

So I went back to Ivan Illich’s classic denouncement of institutionalised education in Deschooling Society. And I found the future waiting to be made.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

7 April 2008

Throwing Poo at Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur

Three Wise Monkeys, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceThe world needs a stirrer, someone willing to dislodge existing patterns of thought. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. They all worked carefully against the orthodoxies of their times. Andrew Keen tries to ape that sort of iconoclasm in his Cult of the Amateur, but just makes a monkey of himself.

Or does he? Monkeys are far more clever than he seems to think.

First, let’s consider what Keen has to say. He takes issue with Web 2.0, the participatory culture of social networking sites like Facebook, the carnivale of YouTube, the black economy of file sharing and the gabble of blogs. He argues that amateurs are ruining the Internet by dumbing it down, like the infinite monkeys who might – given enough time and typewriters – tap out a masterpiece. In the meantime they’ll just type rubbish and abuse copyright, encouraged by a cabal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, particularly Tim O’Reilly.

Guard Statue, by Jennoit, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, Keen claims, is hard times for the newspaper and music industries, clearly without any understanding of the creative destruction that helps industries grow through innovation. He also frets at the loss of control by “gatekeepers” – editors, journalists, authors and the like, those traditional arbiters of information content. Or you might think of them as bereft zoo keepers now that the monkeys have escaped the enclosure.

Keen initially reserves his monkey comment for bloggers, who he thinks never read – at least books like his to go by comments reported in the Guardian. So I imagine empty shelves around me and – behold! – I feel a tail growing. I want to take Keen on his word, and see how a monkey could suggest that today’s Internet is actually improving the world.

Now where’s my banana.

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